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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Molding Ideas: Eames Trash Can Chair

April 21, 2014 Archive Insight

One day in 1948—or maybe ’49—a beat-up Ford pulled up outside a workshop in Arcadia, California. John Wills, the boat builder who owned the workshop, was about to play host to a then largely unknown architect and designer—a visitor on a mission related to an industrial process that Wills had developed. This battered fiberglass chair shell, perched on a trash can, was made as a result of that day’s visit. It represents an early single step in a lengthy design and production process. The result was an enduringly popular landmark design, a chair design you’ve likely sat on, a chair mass-produced to the point of invisibility.

John Wills’ visitor was none other than Charles Eames. Eames was attempting to solve a design problem that had been absorbing him and his wife Ray for the better part of a decade: how to use modern, inexpensive materials to make furniture of extreme simplicity and affordability. Charles, his wife, and a number of close collaborators had become adept at molding plywood through work undertaken for the United States Navy in World War II. After the war their plywood experiments continued, leading to their work with the Herman Miller Company of Zeeland, Michigan, who began to market the Eameses’ designs.

The profitable industrial production of single-piece plywood chair shells proved to be impractical—but what about other materials? The pursuit of a solution to this basic design dilemma led Charles and Ray to investigate other materials such as stamped metal—which proved too heavy—and fiberglass-reinforced plastic. Which is where John Wills comes in: he had developed a fiberglass-plastic formula that could harden at room temperature, without the use of pressure. To the Eameses, manufacturability was a fundamental and necessary component of any good design. By reducing the production steps—not having to heat the shells to harden the material, not having to construct the chair’s shell out of multiple parts, and by adopting a process that reduced production failures—the design could be made more cheaply and profitably. Consequently the resulting design would offer, as Ray put it, “the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.”

Prototype chair by Charles Eames. (Object ID.95.167.1)
Charles Eames had brought Wills a craft paper mockup of the chair he wanted to prototype. Wills told him that the cost of the experimental finished shell would be $25 and that it would be ready in a week or so. Charles Eames returned to the workshop to find that Wills had in fact made two shells: each was examined and sat in, raised to a convenient sitting height by way of a makeshift base made from corrugated metal. Finally however, Eames could only afford to pay for one of the shells, leaving this example behind in Wills’ workshop where it remained, perched on a garbage can for almost fifty years.

The development and refinement of the design continued, first with Zenith Plastics of Gardena, California, and then at the Herman Miller Company. It went into production in 1950 and proved to be an instant success, spawning all manner of variants and a great many imitations. In the 1990s, environmental concerns led to the cessation of its production, pending the development of suitable recyclable plastics. In 2000, the chair, now made from a new polypropylene blend, was returned to the market by Herman Miller.

This battered-looking artifact was a very early step in this design and production story. And it is a reminder that messiness and tentative first steps are a part of every design process: the sleek Eames-designed plastic chairs that have found their way into homes, meeting rooms, cafes—indeed anywhere where affordable and durable seating is required—had to start somewhere.

Marc Greuther is Chief Curator at The Henry Ford.

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